Armorless vs. armored

While browsing through a typical book of Bjoris-what-his-name fantasy artwork, I commented to a friend that most of the warriors are half-nude (the most they wear is a loincloth) and my friend retorted that in combat being almost nude is the best thing.

How correct is my friend? How effective are armour, anyway? If we pit an a barbarian clad only in loincloth against a knight in full-plate, who has the advantage?

Thanks in advance.

Boris Vallejho, you mean?

Your friend is wrong, as history has proven. Granted, being nearly naked gives unhindered mobility, but that isn’t always enough of an advantage to counter the disadvantages. If it were, armor would never have become common.

In the case you cited, of a barbarian against a knight in full armor, the barbarian is dead meat, unless he happens to be carrying an Uzi. And, this is a great example of why your friend is wrong. Whatever advantage the barbarian gains in speed of attack is lost to the inability to penetrate the armor and his own vulnerability.

Being naked is better than being weighed down by purely ornamental gear/garb, but sucks compared to being armored.

BTW, if you get the History Channel, they are running a great show, call Conquest, that is about a group of young modern-day men learning to be knights. Yesterday’s episode covered armor. The bottom line is, without gunpowder-driven weapons, nothing can reliably stand up to it. Chain mail (pretty wimpy, compared to full plate) was sufficient to keep the barbarians at bay for roughly a thousand years.

How many naked barbarian armies overwhelmed armored armies in history?

One can make a case that a fighter unencumbered by armor will be more agile, but people who wore and manufactured armor knew that, as well, and tended to make armor as easy to use as possible. The “heavily” plated knight popularized by Mark Twain and T.H. White was a fiction to support their own theories of warfare and class. (I loved their fiction and appreciated their points, but they were not necessarily historically accurate.) There are several examples, in history, of men in armor swimming through swift currents or leaping onto their horses, fully armed.

Even warriors who are known for their agility (e.g., Japanese Samurai), wore armor in battle.

When military re-enactments wandered into the realm of the ancient gladiators of Rome, the participants made an interesting discovery. The partial armor that is shown in most paintings (and all the movies based loosely on the paintings) is actually quite effective for its purpose: it tended to protect the limbs and head from blows that would disable an opponent while exposing the body for lethal blows. In other words, the armor was used explicitly to keep the fight going as long a spossible, so that some gladiator did not develop a technique of crushing his opponents’ elbows and then going in for the kill against a disarmed opponent.

Only way I could see this being an advantage is if the unarmored/unencumbered person has a ranged attack and the armored does not. The unarmored person can probably keep the armored person from closing to engage. If the two are forced to go hand to hand the armored fighter just has to wait for the unarmored guy to commit to a swing and let the armor take the hit and will leave the unarmored guy wide open for counterattack.

Game over

How effective are armour, actually, then? Or does armour appear not to be effective because of weapons developed to pentrate them?

How much strength does it take to pentrate mediveal and ancient armour, then?

Thanks in advance.

The other thing with gladiator armor is that most styles of gladiator had a large shield which covered most of the body. The parts which stuck out beyond the shield (shins, forearms, and heads) had additional armor.

Note that there were many different styles of gladiator, some of which did, indeed, wear armor (mostly scale mail) over their entire bodies.

Note that even non-armor clothing can give protection in some cases. The mongol horsemen wore silk tunics. If shot with an arrow, it wrapped around the point and allowed the point to be pulled out with less damage. So I doubt that Genghis and friends would have considered going naked an advantage.

I’ve seen a man do a cartwheel in a set of platemale. It’s not as bulky and restrictive as you’d imagine.

There were the Viking berserks who often fought almost naked or possibly in bear skin.


Berserks only made up a small fraction of any Viking force though.

Oh, I dunno about that. I’ve read that arrows shot from a longbow were capable of penetrating plate armor, which really puts a knight in a spot; he’d have to be cut out of his suit, and until then, he was about as comfortable as a crab on a pick.

When I say “longbow”, of course, I’m talking about the wicked sort that deformed the bodies of the archers with their powerful pulls. Those were weapons to be feared.

But on the other hand, there you sit on your little hillock, ensconced in a half a hundred weight of mail, plate and leather when out of the bushes comes ten or twenty guys screaming like scalded cats and naked as jay birds and waiving really big swords. There may be a tendency to say to your self “Holy toes of our Lady of Constant Sorrows, these people are nuts, and I can plainly see those too.” You might have a tendency to break ranks and allow the whole thing to turn into a melee where only one of those naked guys has to get behind you where he can slip a shiv through a chink and ventilate your kidneys. The key is not so much the armor as maintaining a solid front and secure flanks and rear. Once you break ranks you are in trouble, armor or no.

I watched the same episode of Conquest yesterday. They said that a arrow fired from a longbow could penetrate armor, but only at relatively close range.
Of course, plate armour improved over the centuries so it depends exactly when the battle took place

No well trained army would break ranks in a situation like that. It would be a fluke.

Besides, swords wouldn’t terrify them half as much as polearms would.

In a copy of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” I had from a friend, there was some significant historical background, one aspect of which was the crossbow. Chinese crossbows at the time apparently had some wicked penetration; while they were not particularly long-range weapons, the book stated that they were superior in armor penetration to european stave bows.

I think the factor in armor vs armorless only really becomes an issue on the extremes. I would figure a suit of armor could be built to allow good articulation of the body, and have the weight of it spread out enough that when trained sufficiently, the soldier was not markedly encumbered by the added weight. Sixty pounds is much easier to carry when its all over your body, and you are spending every day toting it around. I’m sure these guys in heavy suits of armor are probably in great shape, and their bodies would at least somewhat adapt to the extra weight with enough time.

Well, naked guys with swords are out then. But what about naked guys with pikes?


Alexander’s dreaded infantry only wore very light armour: helmets, greaves, and leather corslets, with a small shield hung from the shoulder. Of course, they were disciplined formations wielding 15’ pikes, too. Typically, enemies never got close enough to be a threat.

Naked guys with pikes are an entirely different story, yea. :slight_smile:

The best plate armor could stop a longbow arrow. However, it couldn’t stop the storms of arrows that trained longbowmen were capable of unleashing. Even then, arrows usually penetrated weak points in the armor. Come to that, the very best metal breastplates could sometimes kept the earliest handgun bullets from penetrating. It didn’t take much firearms development for that to stop, though.

Armored men, especially well-fed knights who had trained all their lives, were capable of a surprising range of movement in heavy armor. They tired more quickly, but the idea of an armored man being unable to mount his horse, or being unable to rise when he fell, are false. Armored men were crushed to death, but this was usually under the weight of corpses and stricken destriers.

Phalanx fighting is an entirely different school, and while Alexander’s phalanx was based on very light armor, earlier Hoplons wore extremely heavy armor and managed to charge the enemy at a dead run. Also, most of Alexander’s serious fighting was done from horseback, with he and the Companion Cavalry charging headlong into the strongest enemy formation. His battles were usually decided before the infantry phalanxes had finished with each other.

Discarding armor might gain you a little quickness, but it probably won’t give you any real advantage, plus it will make any hit your opponent scores that much more dangerous. Armor provides a lot of protection against small wounds, slips, cuts, glancing blows, and other things that can be stopped even by a padded jacket, but would tear naked skin. It was worn onto the field because, for the most part, it worked, whereas naked people of any sort were uncommon on battlefields because they did not have much military usefulness.

One thing to be said is, being unarmored makes it much easier to run away (or execute a retrograde maneuver, if you prefer). While it was possible for a fully armored man to run, during any prolonged exertion, the lack of ventilation would cause profuse sweating, and quickly lead to exhaustion. Just make sure the knight doesn’t have easy access to a horse. This is where a bow might come in handy. Shoot the comparatively vulnerable horse, and run away from the armored knight before he hits you with his sword. Your putative barbarian won’t exactly win, but he won’t die, either. Unless, of course, Mr. Knight has a few dozen friends ready for a vigorous cavalry charge, if that’s the case, well, may God have mercy on your soul, as they said in those days.